The other side of activism

We’ve never considered ourselves activists by any means. It’s not that we don’t care about anything, but that we’ve both spent the past three years enjoying a whole other side of Williams: club sports, tutoring and a lot of Dance Dance Revolution. We didn’t set out to represent a group standing against the social honor code; rather, it just fell into our laps. Like many people, we kept to ourselves and limited our opinions to WSO and friends. Things escalated, however, and on Tuesday, Feb. 19, we both set out to gather signatures in opposition to any sort of social honor code. We didn’t know what to expect but were willing to listen to people’s opinions on the matter and, in return, give our own.

Setting up a table at Paresky was somewhat awkward, considering that the only other occupied table was for the Third Eye Blind concert committee. We each had different experiences. One of us remained at the station and engaged in dialogue with proponents of the social honor code who had gathered to debate the issue. Immediately, questions started flying: How could you oppose something that doesn’t even exist yet? If you don’t support a social honor code, then what is your solution? What exactly is a social honor code?

It seems hard to stand against a social honor code when it is touted as a way to solve the problems that have recently faced the College. After all, who doesn’t want to end discrimination and hateful viewpoints? We are not apathetic in light of the recent events and desire a solution as much as the next person. In fact, we fully support two of the three committees Stand With Us has created, which focus on making change at an individual level. However, it is their desire for new administrative policies (e.g. the social honor code) that concerns us. A piece of paper, we feel, does little to solve true hate and bigotry.

A social honor code mandates social norms in an effort to censor offensive speech. But with a topic as ill-defined as offensive speech, we will undoubtedly come across problems. We shouldn’t have to preface our ideology in a community centered on the exchange of ideas, however controversial. In fact, we welcome controversial speech and debate. So, to answer the questions posed by the social honor code proponents, we are against the very existence of it.

Instead of creating a social honor code, we should strive to create a community where understanding, rather than obedience, leads to acceptance of others. To tell the truth, a great majority of students were receptive to our message. Even those who were indifferent or undecided on the issue listened with respect and consideration. A few exceptions included, ironically enough, members of Stand With Us. The same people who are distressed by the lack of acceptance at Williams also refused to acknowledge our voice on the issue. They asked us the same questions over and over again, even five seconds after they had already been answered. Upon noticing our long list of signatures, one member even insisted that the only reason we had gotten so far was because one of us was female. While we support his right to free speech, our response was that if he could provide evidence or, at least, a decent argument for that claim, then we would certainly acknowledge it. That is, after all, what we are fighting for.

Our aim is that people shouldn’t simply be told that they are wrong, and that they should be punished. Instead, we should argue why they’re wrong by interacting with them. Only then can we eliminate indifference and hatred from our campus, instead of merely masking it.

As for the people we spoke to with the hope of collecting their signatures, there was a broad range of opinions. Some embraced our cause, happy to see someone fighting for their viewpoints on the social honor code. Others were reluctant to sign, fearing that they would be considered racist by their peers. As a result, we had to promise complete confidentiality – that was the only way many would sign. The fact that people have this unwarranted fear already is an indicator that a social honor code will indeed create a culture of fear, a state where people are afraid to speak their minds because they may offend someone else and suffer social as well as disciplinary repercussions. Still others wanted to see a draft of the social honor code before they took any stance on the issue. We respect this opinion completely, because it stands for everything we are fighting for – that is, allowing students to make well-informed decisions on the issues before them.

As for us, we oppose any sort of binding document. If one is created, we will work hard to ensure that the rights of free speech and academic integrity are not trampled by what certain other activists tout as politically correct and progressive.

Ana Morron ’09 is an English and religion major from Elmhurst, N.Y. William McClain ’09 is a math and chemistry major from Ridgeland, Minn.